Of the January 25th
of 1999, I have two memories. In one, I enter my mama's house from my first day of Class 2, restless to take my dirt-caked white-and-navy-blue uniform off. In the other, I go to a cinema hall somewhere in Banani to watch the film Ke Amar Baba?
I was taken to the cinema, along with my cousins, by a mama (not the same one), and remember little of why we suddenly decided to go and watch it. I don't remember much of the film either, except for the denouement, in which in typical Bengali fashion all was resolved (who really was
his father?) in the midst of a group of khaki-clad policemen who, of course, came in too late.
On both these days, I eventually end up at my mama's house at Dhanmondi 33, but I don't know how. If I had my first day of school that day, how did I go to the cinema? Or did I go afterwards? But then, why was I still in uniform by the time I reached my mama's?
The next thing I remember, though, is waking up around 1:00am to a cousin of mine crying on the phone because my mother had passed away.
Without having reached a certain age, one perhaps doesn't quite understand what death means. I remember, from the moment I woke up to the time I reached home, the world being in a rather Kafkaesque, hyperactive stasis. I went from the main bedroom to the room my mother was in, while people all around me – khalas and mamas and dadas and nanis and chakors – moved around.
I remember my father's face bleeding tears like I'd never seen anyone cry before: ugly and grotesque, red and sponge-like. I recall holding the ends of my mother's toes and reciting a surah I could barely remember. And then, I am suddenly at home, a servant in tears changing me out of my clothes so that I can go to bed.
Does a person exist when you don't remember them? Because our collective memories, subsequently, were the only things that kept her alive, but only barely. As the days went by, there was not much suffering, not a lot of crying and wailing. But, suddenly, it was as if there was a hole in the fabric of space and time. Someone, something, used to be here, occupying space, and that wasn't there anymore: a vacuum.
That's what memory is, a way to keep dead things alive. But our most powerful – and most tragic – trait lies in our ability to adapt, to learn and change, to get used to things. That's what hundreds and thousands of years of evolution have taught us. To take time's soothing balm and apply it to the bruises of our experiences.
The worst thing you can do to a memory, and those who are involved in it, is to forget it. But it's as inevitable as a lover's goodbye.
The earliest memory I boast also involves my mother: she is in front of a mirrored almirah, dressed in a blue saree, putting the finishing touches on her make up. A very fast-paced piano plays in the background as my memory immediately shifts to a night when I woke up to my dad grabbing the handles of the same almirah and taking it off so that they fall on the floor and the mirrors shatter, never to be replaced again.
Eta amar baba?
This angry man and his angry actions?
Forward a few years into a small living room with the smallest television set you've ever seen, tucked neatly into an arabesque library. A girl servant sits with me as I dance to a Hindi song featuring Karishma Kapoor. Out of the corner of my eye I see my mother looking at me, her head cropped to her scalp. I get embarrassed and stop immediately, shy, coy. My mum laughs and walks away.
Why was I so okay in front of the servant though, the same one who would go on to dress me on a January night? Into the future: From Siddeswari to Dhanmondi. The servant, Renu, is still with us. When my dad isn't home, she sits at the dining table with me and my grandmother. There's a glancing image of her talking to a man living at the student hostel opposite our Jigatola residence. Three months later, she's carrying a duffel bag out of the house.
A few more deaths, a few more destinations serving as transits: across the Indian sub-continent to Gujrat on the back of a motorcycle, speeding past a temple. “Do you really believe in these gods?” I ask. “No, yeh sab faltu baatein.
Back again into the homeland: fifteen years young but how old I feel. The piano-playing only gets faster. Playing football with a soft bouncy ball that ends up with a broken “show piece” that I blame my cousin for. Miles later, I'm handing Tk15,000 to a girl I barely know because I like the way she smiles.
No deaths, but flashes of nations and cities: Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, London, Edinburgh. A blonde white girl with transparent green eyes says she loves me. Have I known happiness before?
Shorter, rapid breaths: back again. These shoes, homeward. Not Siddeswari again, surely? Have I travelled all this way, all this time, to come back to where I started? My dad's bhuri inflates with my step mom's; swollen tummies promise a quick death and a new birth. Will I remember her baby face in the midst of a swelling sea of memories I can barely clutch on to?
Past stubborn girls on staircases, unhappy women in relationships begging for a change. New money, new kisses. Smoke-filled lungs whisper love into my ear, while across the Atlantic a girl curls into an ampersand. Are these images even real? Will I remember them, will I remember her, will I remember anyone, or anything?
Just for now, that's enough. Or is it? Play the piano softly, add some violins. Hold on to my memories for dear life. Fleeting, like these words, these seconds, these poems from the mouth of an angry dragon: I see you, you see me. We exist. We exist. We exist.